President Barack Obama finishes a meeting with Senate Democrats on the situation in Syria as he walks to meet with GOP leaders, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Updated: October 12, 2013 6:40AM
Because President Obama has stood firm on Syria, serious diplomatic efforts are afoot to put one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons under international control.
This would be a remarkably successful resolution to the Syrian crisis, but it’s also the longest of long shots. An agreement now being brokered with the help of Russia, France and the United Nations could fall apart on a whim, especially if Syrian President Bashar Assad insists — as Russia says he does — that any agreement include no threat of military sanctions.
All the more reason to keep the pressure on, beginning with the continued threat of a limited military strike.
It was Obama’s determined move toward a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people that forced a worried Syria — and its ally Russia — to float a diplomatic solution. And so now, more than ever, Congress should back the president up.
Obama has asked Congress to postpone a vote while diplomatic efforts race forward — and likely because he hasn’t got the votes yet — but when the time comes Congress should approve a resolution, being drafted by a bipartisan group of senators, authorizing a strike on Syria if the government fails to hand over its chemical weapons.
The president, in an address to the nation Tuesday, said he would order a military attack only as a last resort, but he emphasized that Syria has turned a deaf ear to diplomatic solutions.
“I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions,” Obama said. “Over the last two years my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warnings and negotiations. But chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.”
Any United Nations plan under which Syria would turn over its chemical weapons should include a timetable, a clear process and painful consequences, including military action, if Syria fails to keep up its end of the bargain. It was the threat of American bombs that brought Assad this far, and it will be the threat of bombs that ensures this is not a Syrian ruse, a way of buying time.
Just two days ago, Obama looked to be flailing madly. He had failed to pull together an international coalition to punish Assad’s regime for carrying out an alleged chemical attack in Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed, by U.S. estimates, 1,429 men, women and children. Then, when the president turned to Congress for an endorsement of a limited attack on Syria’s armed forces, reluctant to go it alone in the face of great public skepticism, he stumbled there, too. He knew the House might be a hard sell, but he quickly learned the Democrat-controlled Senate was no sure thing, either.
The irony, then, is that this war-averse president, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, found himself standing alone in calling for a military strike against Syria, dropped cold by most of America’s traditional allies and many members of Congress.
But, adding further to the irony, it is because of Obama’s somewhat lonely insistence on a military response — whether heart-felt or because he painted himself into a corner — that there is a small hope for the best of all possible outcomes: the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons. The threat of force may turn out to be exactly what was needed to force the kind of diplomacy that is central to Obama’s world view.
If all sincere diplomatic efforts are exhausted, it will be in the United States’ security interests to take military action.
“Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver,” Obama said. “A targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.”
And it will be in the world’s moral interest.
“I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor,” Obama said to the American people. “For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”
Conversely, if diplomatic efforts do succeed and Assad agrees, as part of an iron-clad agreement, to turn over his chemical weapons stockpile, it will not be because he has suddenly tapped his inner non-violent Gandhi.
Assad will back down only because the United States would not allow a dictator to brazenly and barbarically violate international law.